Thursday, 27 November 2014

The "Well I liked it" awards

2014 was an interesting year in Canberra Theatre - I do seem to have reviewed less this year than I have in previous years, and ... I won't say it's always because there was less that I was interested in, but certainly there was an element of "resting on your laurels" in a few cases. Not in every case, some stuff stuck out well during the year, and this is meant to be a positive post about things that were good during the year, but ... it wasn't always the case that I left the theatre in a better mood than I walked into it this year.

Having started off on a moody note, let's go on to note what was good, in vaguely chronological order:

- Karen Vickery's dual performances bracketed the year gloriously, both as a strong loving mother in "Steel Magnolias" and in a monstrous terror of a mother in "August:Osage County".

- Supa Productions scored a strong one-two with two off-the-beaten-track choices for their musical season in "Witches of Eastwick" and "La Cage Aux Folles". Neither were entirely perfect productions, but each were fun, and, at the very least, both brought welcome performances from Michelle Klemke and Jarrad West that were among the highlights of the year.

- "Government Inspector" at Belvoir was flatout continuous hilarious fun, satirising pretence and presumption wonderfully in a fast, smooth romp.

- "White Rabbit/Red Rabbit" stuck with me and is going to fall in the "I liked it" category, at the same time as acknowledging many people would have hated it. I'm still not sure whether a show that manipulates it's participants quite as much as this one does should be considered a success... but it's stuck with me, for better or worse (it also gave us a chance to see Eliza Bell back on Canberra stages, and her human warmth kept the ropey parts of the evening together).

- Jenna Roberts showed up to handily grab another "Well I Liked It" with her performance as Paulette in "Legally Blonde", making her unique as a triple-time-winner.

- "The Burning" at the Q stuck out for giving two prominent roles to performers that helped redefine them in my mind - Amy Dunham went from her regular casting as wacky sidekick to a rounded, adult, warmhearted woman who left the stage way too soon, while Will Huang went from his regular casting as charmingly genial musical performer to something utterly creepy and evil.

- Benjamin Hardy's performance in "Equus" stuck out as something intriguing - as act two lead into his increasingly harrowing exorcism of his self-created demons, he kept us engaged, enthralled and astounded.

- Also from "August: Osage County" I have to mention Andrea Close, who plumbed rich veins in anger, rage, wrath and, eventually, a strange kind of familial love.

- EDITED TO ADD - one performance that has been ruminating in my brain since I wrote this is Angel Dolejsi's performance in Cabaret. In particular, his raw-as-guts and emotional-as-hell "I don't care much" comes back to me as one of the year's strongest musical performances, in a production that was otherwise quite uneven

A good bunch of WILI winners, I salute them all.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Blithe Spirit, Canberra Rep

What makes a production work? Is it the acting? The set? The script? How about when all three appear to be firing but yet it still doesn't quite float?

To start with, the script - Coward's script combines a bit of the "lovers reunited" energies of "Private Lives" with the utterly eccentric Madame Arcati and a fair bit more plot involved than usual to provide a witty evening of quips, bitching and cocktails. There's also, as this production uncovers, a little bit of sexism, racisim and classism (as the characters variously mock women, indians and the servants), although this is played fairly straight (with the main recovery largely being that Emma Wood's Ruth, in particular, doesn't take the sexism lying down but clearly resents each sting),

The acting is largely fine, and in some cases better than fine. Wood is, for mine, the highlight ... which may indicate an underlying problem, in that this is a comedy where the best performance is the most straightlaced of the lead characters - comedy, particularly this comedy, is about letting inhibitions loose, discovering joy in unexpected places. Wood is, as the part demands, uptight, sensible, rational and calm until the moment when her marriage is rudely disrupted by the return visit of the ghost of her husband's ex-wife - then she's tense, disturbed and engaging. 

Elsewhere, things are more mixed. Peter Holland is a delightful performer, but in this produciton he's way too laid back, way too often. The return of his ex-wife should excite and enliven him - too often Holland is sprawling across the couch, comfortably settled in. Anita Davenport has a gorgeously kittenish voice and has, elsewhere, shown the ability to be damn sexy, but her Elvira is more a playful friend than a seductive threat in the household (this may be partially due to her costume - the cape and feather boa are nice for her to play with, but the nightie underneath is way too flat and figure-concealing to allow Davenport to bring all the sexy required). I recall last time Davenport and Holland were up against one another in "Out of Order" the sparks flew far more, so it's not a question necessarily of the actors not having chemistry as it not being suitably bottled. 

Liz StClair Long's Madame Arcati is a delightful scene-stealer when she shows up (her dancing moves as she goes into a seance being a particular highlight) but there are moments when she, again, lets the pacing slide off track and rather than continuing rolling comedy, we get intermittent amusement. Yanina Clifton's Edith is a delightfully unsure-of-herself-maid and brings additional amusment when she can, though it isn't exactly a part that can carry the evening. 

Andrew Kay's set is grand, imposing, and does all the clever-ghost-tricks with aplomb (with the assistance of Dot Russell and the rest of the stagecrew), although there is some strange furniture-arranging on it that leads to the stage having strange gaps on it and people having to move chairs and tables around a lot more than seems entirely sensible. 

In the program notes, Director Kate Blackhurst suggests the secret of acting, as per Noel Coward, is "learn to speak clearly, to project your voice without shouting - and to move about the stage gracefully without bumping into people". I'd suggest the secret of directing is that you find ways for people to bump into one another, to make connections between each other - at the moment, what she's delivered is a production full of isolated individuals rather than a rounded story.

In short, this is an evening which I found myself liking elements of the acting and the production without ever quite being captured and carried along into the pure comic raptures I was hoping for. So ... it's okay but I wanted better. 

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

A Christmas Carol, Belvoir

A reasonably straightforward version of the Dickens classic, what brings this out of the ordinary is some exceptional stagecraft and some entertaining performances.

First, though, I do have to poke a bit at the scriptwriting. Benedict Hardie and Anne-Louise Sarks' script is never actively bad, though there are points where the difference between dialogue in a novel and dialogue on stage is pretty apparent (dialogue in a novel doesn't have to sound natural coming out of an actor's mouth, dialogue on stage does). I do kinda think Belvoir has had a problem with some of their adaptations over the last year - Simon Stone made script adaptation look a lot easier than it actually is, and attempts to follow him have often led otherwise talented theatre-makers astray. Just because you have a classic story and a verbatim translation, you don't always have a completely persuasive script - it does need a little more care than that.

Fortunately, while Sarks is mediocre as a playwright she's exceptional as a director. There's some virtuoso staging here - on a bare-bones, heavily raked stage with trapdoors, she directs a show with regular magic, snow and a kaleidoscope of locations and times, as Scrooge's journey takes him through his past present and future, and keeps it moving effectively and entertainingly. She's assisted by Michael Hankin's deceptively simple design, Benjamin Cisterne's sharp-as-a-tack lighting, and Stefan Gregory's creepily effective sound design.

Scrooge may be one of the roles Robert Menzies was born to play - his natural hangdog expression and thin body are a perfect representation of Scrooge's miserly nature and his drawn-in-grumpiness. But he's also exceptional at tracking the changes in this man - as humanity creeps back into him. The rest of the cast bounce through a range of supporting roles - Kate Box's tinsel-tastic Ghost of Christmas Present, Steve Rodgers' ambiable Bob Cratchit and his goofy Christmas-tree-charity-bucket-holder, Ivan Donato's stern Ghost of Christmas Past, Ursula Yovich's mumsy Mrs Cratchit and Miranda Tapsell's bright-and-bubbly Tiny Tim stick out for special mention.

Stage management by Edwina Guinness and Sara Stait deserve special mention both for highly-active work backstage to make all the magic work, plus for what is undoubtedly a highly laborious pre-show setup and post-show cleanup to properly distribute the massive amount of snow that ends up in various spots around the auditorium (and contributes to a fun pre-show ritual as various kids and adults in the audience throw bits of paper all over each other).

A fun and fast moving adaptation that, perhaps, doesn't cut as deeply as it could, but never the less proves effective in the watching.

Emerald City, Griffin, Stables Theatre

David Williamson's 1987 comedy came at an interesting time in his career - during the 80s, he wrote only five plays, while also writing thirteen produced screenplays. Which is probably why in this play the central character is a successful screenwriter - frequently feted by everybody as highly talented. and with a strong ethical core that gets him into trouble as often as not.

Fortunately, despite the wildly self-serving premise, "Emerald City" is also one of Williamson's wittiest and most thoughtful plays. While the initial circumstances are far removed from everyday life, somewhere in the middle of act one it becomes clear that the various ethical dilemmas and compromises aren't just in the film industry - there's broader ethical questions about how far do we really care about the world outside our own door and what should we really be doing with our lives going on.

As the Williamson surrogate, Mitchell Butel has a easy charming semi-gormlessness that serves him well - it's a bit astonishing that he is, in fact, old enough to be having a mid-life crisis, but never the less he sells it well. Lucy Bell as his wife is both patient, mildly exasperated audience to his rants and her own very active, compassionate, intelligent woman. She has a knack for spotting bullshit without being unnecessarily unkind, and really sells the deeper questions of the script. Ben Winspear plays the sleaziest of the tempters on the edge of caricature but brings back his inner humanity and emotional motivations to keep him human. Kelly Paterniti is, similarly, written just on the edge of being a blatant sex-object, but she adds intelligence and style to keep things iteresting. Jennifer Hagan gets some of the snarkiest comments and lands both her intelligence and ego wonderfully.

Lee Lewis directs with a good speedy energy - Williamson's longer rants are kept active with stage business to ensure nothing gets too bogged down in re-iterating what's already understood. A gloriously 80's Ken Done mural captures the era wonderfully, keeping Sydney harbour as glossily tempting as ever. Kelly Ryall's music has some idetifiably 80's notes that act as short bumpers between scenes, and Luiz Pampolha's lighting similarly captures regular shifts of location and mood.

This isn't the deepest show ever, but it's good fast entertainment with a bit of a brain, and is worth catching.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

La Cage Aux Folles, Supa Productions, ANU Arts Centre

La Cage Aux Folles began as a French stage farce in the mid seventies, before turning into three French language films (the two sequels do seem to define "stupid sequel plotting"), an english language remake ("The Birdcage") and a grand splashy Broadway musical. With music from Big-Lady-supremo Jerry Herman and a script by Harvey Fierstein (fresh off Torch Song Trilogy), it combines French farce with American sentimentality, to surprisingly good effect.

It's rare enough for a musical to feature a mature-aged couple at the centre - let alone a long-term couple who are together at the beginning and end of the show. For all the glitz and glamour, what really works about La Cage is that core central relationship between nightclub owner Georges (Jarrad West) and drag performer Albin (Benjamin O'Reilly). Separately, they're charming  - West oozes Clooney-esque smoothness and gravitas (and a surprising wig, but then again, Georges is probably the kind of guy who'd toupee), while O'Reilly is hilarious, a real clothes-horse and adorably scatter-brained - but together, this lifts into something magical. Wherever the show around them is shaky (and there's a couple of shaky points), these two serve as a strong anchor to hold the show together. It does take until the fifth song when the two duet on "With you on my arm" for all these elements to come together, but once it does, the show bypasses a lot of your critical facilities, goes straight to your heart and stays there.

Elsewhere, there's a lot of good talent - the six "Les Cagelles" move well, and are dressed in increasingly glorious costumes (designed by Suzan Cooper), Greg Sollis provides some delgihtful cameos in the supporting cast, Alexander Clubb has enough charm for us to forgive his character for doing some fairly massively insensitive things, Fraser Findlay steals scenes with goofy aplomb and Barbara Denham is smooth and classy as deus ex machina Jaqueline. The Dindon family, the conservative nemeses of our two heroes, are fairly underwritten, but each sieze a moment or two to shine - Len Power has a great smug moment at the restraunt, Michelle Klemke has one moment of vocal outburst that's hilarious and a similarly fun dance moment later, and Tamina Koehne-Drube gets to show off a fine pair of dancing legs early in the show and looks genially charming later.

There are some first-night pacing problems meaning that this works better as sentimental comedy than as fast-paced farce, and some awkward noises coming out of the pit co-ordinated by Rose Shorney - hopefully these will be ironed out as the run continues - and some strange accent-soups being played among the cast - West, Clubb and Power are all mid Atlantic, O'Reilly is somewhat regionally UK, Klemke, Koene-Drube and Denham are French, and everybody else seems to pick one at random and goes with it (Sollis tries two different ones for his two cameos). The set design using multiple LED projectors works well for the most part in solving the problem of the ANU Arts centre's restrictive backstage, but is still a little pixel-ish, particularly for the screens closest to the audience.

Still, I think what an audience will take home is that this is a fun, sentimental, glamourous, sweet entertainment for an audience to gushingly enjoy. Plenty of quality giggles, some nice tunes to snuggle with your special someone in the audience, glitzy costumes and a whole lot of fun.

Monday, 27 October 2014

August: Osage County, Free Rain, Courtyard Studio

An epic-length and sized story of one Oklahoma family gathered together in the face of a crisis, "August: Osage County" has been an international sensation since it premiered in Chicago in 2007. The opening line is a T.S. Eliot quote, "Life is very long", and indeed, at over three hours, a fair chunk of the richness and complexity of life gets included. Combining jet-black comedy, tragedy, secrets revealed, searing confrontations and heartbreaking pathos, Tracy Letts has provided a play that's full of interest both to performers and to audience.

Free Rain's production fulfills much of that interest. The choice of the small courtyard studio does mean an intimacy in the playing, at the expense of one or two more epic moments  (in particular, the idea that this is a family home that most of the family has abandoned disappears a bit when there isn't a lot of empty space around those remaining; and only one window has to cover for all the windows that have been blocked off elswhere in the house). But sightlines are generally well preserved (only once did a key character disappear out of view, during the opening conversation in Act Three between the three sisters), which is not always the case when the Courtyard is set to play longways (I've often seen productions where there doesn't appear to be any good points for the audience to sit, whereas here if you're reasonably central you're covered).

The cast is, pretty uniformly, superlative. David Bennett as the patriach whose departure precipitates the action, is firmly memorable, wise and regretful. Karen Vickery as the matriach is utterly extrordinary as the matriach, turning from incoherently stoned to brutally focussed on a dime (first seen when she viciously spurts forth with "why don't you fuck a dead sow's ass" and getting increasingly unpleasant and unpredictable from there). Andrea Close as the oldest daughter is similarly rich, traversing vast realms of emotion from bitter anger to worn-out exhaustion to righteous fury (her declaration at the end of Act Two "I'M RUNNING THINGS NOW!" is an order that must be listened to). As her husband, Jim Adamik is calming, witty and finally resigned and accepting (their final scene together in particular is heartbreaking). As middle daughter Ivy, Lainie Hart plays both the tension as she attempts to keep a series of secrets from her family, and the ease she feels when she doesn't have to hide anything about herself. Youngest daughter Karen as played by Rose Braybook, practices an extended avoidance of any uncomfortable realities, even as the worst appear in front of her. Paul Jackson as her fiance pretty much IS the worst reality that could appear in front of her - he's odiously sleazy and unpleasant.

Outside the immediate family, Liz Bradley is staunch and eventually just as clearly in denial as aunt Mattie Fae. Michael Sparks brings midwest-charm and a clear strong sense of certainty to her husband Charlie. Ethan Gibson is, frankly, too young to be realistically 37 as the script repeatedly insists he is, but he invests both in Little Charles' fragility and in the gentle warmth that exists between him and his secret partner. Amy Campbell, similarly, doesn't quite look young enough to be 14 but certainly has the prickliness and the know-it-all cynicism down pat. Linda Chen is a solid, frequently silent presence as the maid Johnna, and Brian Kavanaugh's Sherrif Gilbeau is warm and decent.

In pretty much every case you get a sense of these characters as people with long histories before and after their time on stage.  Pretty much every character who leaves the house seems likely to never come back but living with the revalations that have happened during the action onstage seems likely to be a long and painful process, and we're fortunate that in this productions the characters feel so fully rounded and real that you can't help wonder and worry about these poor damaged and damaging people.

Cate Clelland as director has done a stirling job in getting a solid cast united in a dramatically rich evening that feels deep enough for your mind to swim in for days later. When something this good is on Canberra stages, you are urged to go. Go now.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

The Wedding, Hughes theatre

With a who's who of Canberra Theatre in attendance, The Wedding was always going to be a major event on the calendar. And with two high quality lead performers/producers/writers in Sarah Byrne and Peter MacDonald, the end result was, as predicted, polished perfection. Costumes, music, lighting, weather (despite one well-timed ominous rumble during "in sickness in health") all combined to present an event that celebrated life, love and happiness.

Even the one un-even moment mandated in the script (the legally mandated "marriage is between a man and a woman") was quickly rescued by a delightfully phrased rebuttal ("but we look forward to the day that these rights can be extended to all our friends").

The musical accompaniment of the Wacky Whizz-bang Wurtlitzer band as a fine all-melodica trio gave a delightfully whimsical tone to the entire event, but perfectly-excecuted whimsy.

The wedding had a one night run. But now the sequel, The Marriage, is running. It will run forever.

(Yes, this is incredibly self-indulgent but ... it's a blog, that's what they're for)

Friday, 10 October 2014

Sunset Boulevard, The Q

Andrew Lloyd-Webber is the ten-pound gorilla of musicals - his shows are among the biggest of all time (in the list of longest running Broadway shows, he has the top two - Phantom and Cats - on the West End he has to be satisfied with 3rd and 6th, due to the non-closing of The Mousetrap and Les Miserables). "Sunset Boulevard" is unusual in the Lloyd Webber canon in that it's got a strong central star part for a mature diva (and mature divas have devoured the role, from Patti LuPone to Glenn Close ... even Barbra Streisand launched two of the songs on her "Back to Broadway" album and used "As If we Never Said Goodbye" as her opening song in her iconic 1994 concert, and reused it to launch the shows in her 2012 tour. Incidentally, for people who are wondering out there, yes, That Guy is a homosexual. Flaming).

Based on the Billy Wilder film, the show is about a cynical screenwriter who's encounter with a former silent-screen diva becomes increasingly fraught with danger as her delusions about her potential return to the silver screen. Obviously Wilder's film had the advantage that it could use the real Cecil B. DeMille, and Gloria Swanson and Eric Von Stroheim were playing characters not-too-far-removed from their own past - but the musical has it's own virtues in a lavish score with suspensful ostinatos and two strong arias for Chief Diva Norma Desmond (Brownyn Sullivan), one per act. And Sullivan is in powerfully good voice for both of them, seducing rapturous applause from the audience. She's also clearly studied her silent film divas - her ever-active fingers signalling a woman who's used to big gestures.

Elsewhere, things are a bit more uneven. Vocally the cast is mostly strong, dramatically the show doesn't work as well. This is a story of strong passions and dramatic movements, and the staging keeps on getting bogged down in the most awkward of places, with long pauses killing the pace in unfortunate places (particularly late in act two and just before "As If We Never Said Goodbye" - the cast sorta stand around awkwardly and wait for Sullivan to burst forth. There is also a tendency during the big songs for the cast to not sufficiently engage one another - it's "face front, feet down, belt it to the back wall" blocking, and leads to other cast members often being stuck on the sidelines onstage waiting til they're allowed to act again.

Sullivan's Norma is too often a daffy auntie rather than a demandying monstrous Diva. Daniel Wells' cynical narration only rarely gets to show the heart and torment as he's drawn guiltily towards Desmond, first as a source of income and later as a protector. Peter Dark's Max Von Myerling starts strongly as he imposingly stalks the halls and sternly barks his responses, but it's not until late into act two that we get any variation in his performance. Vanessa DeJager, is sweet, funny and charming but there's no sense of burgeoning chemistry between her and Wells until they burst into their love song halfway through the second act - and the relationship is over a scene after that, which doesn't help.

Sharon Tree's orchestra is mostly pretty solid but either there's too many synths in there or the sound mix by Eclipse Lighting and Sound brings them too much to the fore, leading to an overly "tinny" sound. Brian Sudding's set suffers from being overly tightly contained and not changing all evening, but also looks like some of the painting hasn't really been finished (the chimney, in particular, looks half-done). Miriam Miley-Read's costumes capture the era and the granduer (as required) gorgeously.

So this is a show about grand passions that, alas, ends up being largely an academic exercise. It's often pretty and nicely presented, but it lacks the guts and soul that would bring this from "adequate" to "extrordinary".

Friday, 3 October 2014

Warf Revue - Open For Business, Canberra Theatre

The Wharf revue has, if I've read correctly, had thirteen installments by now. And this is the first one I've seen. A series of topical songs and sketches performed by a team of four, it's reasonably fast, snappy satire allowing us to giggle at the foibles of the rich and powerful. Or at least politicians.

This year, as has been the case for a few years by now, one of the performers (Drew Forsythe) is sitting out (his role in "Strictly Ballroom The Musical" taking precedence), though he's still credited as a writer and appears in a few pre-filmed video inserts (introducing the show as a sternly straight-faced Brownyn Bishop and later appearing as a distincltly Montgomery Burns-ish Rupert Murdoch). And onstage the highlights tend to emerge from Jonathan Biggins (who gets a chance to show off one of my favourite physical features, comedy legs, in a pair of very short shorts as Bob Brown in a Greens-style-funk-off) and Amanda Bishop who shows off a powerful set of lungs in a range of operatic-leaning numbers (in particular, a wild-haired Peter Credlin) as well as being a disturbingly sexy Miranda Devine. Biggins and Bishop also score in a Paul Keating/Julia Gillard duet that may be the highlight of the evening (the comedy well of imitation Paul Keating insults may, in fact, be inexhaustible, and, yes, it is absolutely playing to the lefty luvvies of the audience to have these two onstage, but, well, I am a leftie luvvie so why should I complain).

It could be argued, of course, that political satire is astonishingly redundant in a country that has got to the point where the Palmer United Party has managed to get several members elected. And to a certain extent, these are fish being shot in a barrel. The opening few numbers take a while to really land (Phillip Scott's opening song, the Corey Bernardi song and the "Canberra tales" segment all lack a slight "zip"), and, indeed, Scott generally scores better as a sideline presence adding occasional zingers and as a vituoso piano accompanist rather than as a performer in the centre of sketches. Newcomer to the Revue Douglas Hansell scores with a extrordinarily twattish Christopher Pyne (almost as twattish as the actual Christopher Pyne) and a stick-up-the-butt Scott Morrison, but elsewhere is more functionally good rather than extraordinary. It also feels like the closing number is a tad perfunctory rather than something that really wraps up the evening enthusiastically.

So ... this is uneven, but the highlights are indeed pretty darn good.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Equus, Canberra Rep

Peter Shaffer's drama is a modern classic. Stripped down to the essentials, it's an exercise in pure theatre as a psychiatrist investigates the fractured psyche of a damaged young boy - combining tight dialogue, lighting, sound, physical movement and staging in a shattering narrative.

It's not, however, the tightest play ever written. There are some quite rambling monologues for the psychiatrist, Martin Dysart (Jerry Hearn) in which he internally examines his motivations and, despite Hearn's best attempts, this doesn't quite grab us to the dramatic core as much as we care about his patient, Alan Stang (Benjamin Hardy). It could be a personal preference that I can't quite be as drawn in by the middle-age angst of a professional as I am by the dangerous combination of emotions that Hardy creates - a boy whose fevered imaginations on religion, sexuality and society lead him into disturbing territory. Hardy has the strange ability to jump in seconds from a physically angelic child to a sullen teenager, and then to provide a disturbingly vacant stare as the shattered person Alan has become, and it's truly fascinating to watch.

Around these two performances is a strong ensemble. The six horses of the chorus (Graham August, Melissa Gryglewski, Ben Harris, Ben Kearney, Erin Pugh and Nikole Rene Souza) are a strong physical presence throughout - observing, silently judging. S.E. O'Brien's masks are a great, simple stylised design, deployed powerfully and carefully as the play progresses (initlally only handled by the chorus, they aren't all worn until the final sequence - when finally all six are in play, the tension is at its height). Elewhere in the cast, Olivia Sparrow's kind, compassionate Jill is a highlight. Ian Croker and Nikki-Lynne Hunter go beyond the slight cliches of the script of censorious-aetheist-dad and religious-overly-indulgent-mother to reveal two people who are trying their best to live their convictions and raise a child, not just simple single-issue-monsters.

barb barnett's direction pulls this longish evening (two and a half hours) together with a strong sense of builidng tension to the final exorcism. Supported by Ian Croker's rich scenic design, Penelope Vaile's varied costumes, Greg Bateman's dense and clever sound design (as the rhythmic noises onstage transfer from the actors to the soundtrack and back again without apparently missing a beat) and Jon Grotto's sharp and intelligent lighting design, she uses a simple, horseshoe-shaped arena with a few benches and a raised bar to bring us closer inside the mind of one damaged boy.

This is important work that plays to the mind and the heart, with one superlative "where has this actor been and when can I get to see him again" performance at the centre. Strongly recommended.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The King and I, Australian Opera, Joan Sutherland Theatre

Rogers and Hammerstein's fifth stage collaboration took them away from their run of Americana classics into the culture clash between a Victorian school teacher and a Thai despot. Yet it's also where the Rogers and Hammerstein formula seems to stick in place in a little - there's the romantic subplot with the unhappy ending from "South Pacific" back again, there's the older lady with the big song (a la Nettie Fowler from "Carousel and Bloody Mary from South Pacific), and there's even a rejected song from "South Pacific" with new lyrics ("Suddenly Lucky" became "Getting to Know You"). No wonder the Australian Opera decided to recycle their South Pacific leads.

The problem, of course, is that Teddy Tahu Rhodes may be qualified to play a French plantation owner but racially and dramatically he's wildly mis-cast as the King of Siam. The role isn't written to take advantage of his fine operatic voice, but instead is vastly in need of a particular pranking sense of charisma which Rhodes flatly doesn't really possess. His performance tends to consist of stomping around looking fairly dopey for most of the run of the show, which just doesn't work. In a show that largely consists of a battle of wits between the two leads, Rhodes looks weapon-less.

It's a pity because a lot of the production around him is pretty darn good. This is a return of the 23-year old 1991 revival that launched in Sydney with Hayley Mills and Tony Marinyo, and the production design by Brian Thompson (sets) and Roger Kirk (costumes) remains gorgeously lavish. Lisa McCune is suitably uptight and governessy in all the right ways, And Jerome Robbins' ballet for "Small House of Uncle Thomas" is a modern classic for a reason, it's funny and heart rending and dramatic in all the right ways.

But, dammit, there's a big fat hole where the King should be in this production and the rest of the production just doesn't quite hold up around him. It leads to awkward questions about the slightly clunky construction (by not being very invested in the King, the logic of why he suddenly becomes conveniently ill for the finale becomes more dubious - dramatically, it's meant to be that he has been emotionally destroyed, but Rhodes comes nowhere near selling that).Which means what we have is a very pretty, functional object that just doesn't work.

Monday, 29 September 2014

The Glass Menagerie, Belvoir

Ah, good. Belvoir's back to doing it right. Director Eamon Flack has delivered a production that draws the maximum resonance from Tennessee Williams' classic script, by playing up the memory-play aspects and getting all the emotion without, as is always the threat with Williams, going too histrionic.

The centre of this production is Luke Mullins as Tom. Even more than usual, he's a thinly disguised author substitute - his first entrance in neckerchief-and-sunglasses as a mature, swishy gentleman who guides us into the depression-era family setting. The production plays up the suggestion of images on screens in the text by having Mullins constantly stepping outside of scenes to set video cameras to capture his sister and mother in glorious black and white images, much like the movies Tom so often escapes to.

Pamela Rabe's Amanda is wonderfully, irritatingly frustrating as she attempts to arrange her children's lives, without realising just how far she's pushing them away. The production's carefully balanced so she doesn't, as some Amanda's can, ride roughshod over the rest of the play - but she is utterly real at the same time as she's hysterically funny (her dress for the second act is a particular highlight).

Rose Riley is a first timer at Belvoir - and her Laura is a revelation. Laura can be dangerous for an actress - she can be so wan and fey as to be irritating - but Riley plays her uncertainty as real and solid and desparately close to breaking through - while at the same time clearly suffering more than just physical impairment - her yowls of frustration are terrifying.

Harry Greenwood rounds out the cast as the Gentleman Caller - a fresh faced figure of fantasy and confidence who betrays a complete lack of understanding of the people around him while never-the-less making it clear why Laura would fall so completely for him and be so heartbroken by him in the final moments.

Michael Hankin's set and Mel Page's constumes capture the era gorgeously (though I'm not sure how easily the set suits people not seated in the central block - Belvoir's sight angles are not always friendly). All in all this is a spectacularly moving, funny, heartfelt production that commands the attention.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Nora, Belvoir

Belvoir's return to Ibsen after last month's Hedda Gabler is, alas, another miss. Anne-Louise Sarks does at least understand pace and tension and keeps her drama flowing relatively well, and for most of act one (a tight modernisation of "A Doll's House") she holds together well the story of a wife (Blazey Best) reaching the point of frustration with her husband (Damien Ryan) that means she must walk away from her home forever.

The problem is, what comes next. Again, this may be advertising, the question posed is "what happens after she leaves her husband and children". And the answer in this case is .. not a lot. The choice to go with "immediately after" and have the entire second act be her conversation with a friend (Linda Cropper) in which we learn, not surprisingly, that her options are limited, means it's not a particularly dramatic resolution. While the notorious Broadway flop "A Doll's Life" took Nora into ridiculous adventures in industry and mutiple subsequent romances, at least it took her on a journey. "Nora" just seems to dump her on a couch for fourty minutes.

It's a pity - Blazey Best is a hell of a strong performer, and both surpresses her frustrations and lets them flow out of her in act one when the time comes wonderfully - her silent dancing moment in particular draws the audience in. But not coming up with anything interesting to happen in Act Two is, ultimately, a fatal flaw that kills the show. Cropper and Best drive it reasonably and for a while you hold out hope that this is going to go somewhere ... but it never really does.

So, no, not recommended.

Ugly Mugs, Griffin

An "Ugly Mugs" pamphlet is a publication made for and by street-working prostitutes in Melbourne - describing and identifying possibly dangerous customers to help other girls avoid them. Peta Brady's play uses this as a way into exploring issues regarding female sexuality and male violence and the ways they seem inextricably linked.

The show is structured around two storylines - in a morgue, the examiner (Steve LeMarquand) is examining the dead body of a prostitute (Brady) and finds her copy of the Ugly Mugs pamphlet - and while reading, he converses with her and she talks back about her life; meanwhile a young boy (Harry Boland) sits in police custody and remembers the last time he saw a young girl (Sara West).

The first of these storylines plays much stronger than the second (though it does have a somewhat too tidy wrapup) - unfortunately, it also seems to get way less stage time. LeMarquand and Brady have an easy interaction about them that plays well, and it's good, specific, tight writing. West and Boland, meanwhile, are in a far more generic storyline - West, in particular, is very strong (and both LeMarquand and Brady play second roles in this storyline as well) but the relationship between the two feels only very loosely thematic and it's really only at one point (when West sits on the trolley that has previously had the prostitutes corpse on it), that any kind of link is clearly drawn.

I don't want to dismiss this as a misfire - there's a lot of strengths here - but it isn't a perfectly aimed shot either. Maybe it's that the publicity for the show sold itself a lot on the prostitution angle and it ends up being subdued next to a midly aimless adolescent drama instead, but I did feel this didn't quite realise the potential it had.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Short and Sweet Top 20 Week 2, Courtyard Studio

The final round of heats for Short and Sweet offers another mixed bag with a couple of highlights and pieces worth talking about.

"Vulnerable", written and directed by Ben Harris, sits unusually in three parts scattered through the first half of the evening. It's an interesting structure, although some of the dialogue does not sit comfortably on the actors and it works more impressionistically than as a clear narrative of a story. It's a case where what's going on with the lighting and positioning is often a lot more interesting than what's being told - which suggests skill without, at this point, structure. It's a positive sign and I await further developments from Ben.

"The Unexpected" is from the usually reliable Greg Gould - however, in this playing, at least, it comes across as a tad schematic and clunky. The staging possibly doesn't help - it's a little too fussy and the characters never quite go deep enough to get the most out of the script.

"Presto" is a clever piece from Mike McRae, featuring a delightful Michelle Cooper performance as a heftily analytical rabbit, Paul Jackson as a cynically hard-boiled monkey, Tony Cheshire as a delightfully self-impressed magician and Sarah McCarthy tying it all together as his harried assistant. While it's not the most brilliant script ever written, it's snappily directed, tightly played and looks good.

"And what a damn fine morning it is" gives a good solid two hander for Luke Middlebrook and Michael Smith as two competetive suburbanites. It goes a little soggy in the middle (not enough real variations on the theme), but is well played by the duo.

"Deep Shallow Empty" has interesting staging and performances but, again, the writing plays as overly schematic and has a couple of phrasing problems where the dialogue doesn't sit comfortably on the actors.

"Tagged" is an amusing, brisk trifle played between Sophie Benassi, Scott Rutar and Rhys Hekimian - Benassi in particular excels at playing the straight woman (even when wresting with a misbehaving prop), and this never outstays its welcome.

"Gold Digger Nights" is an attempt at a musical, and while story and songs are never mindbogglingly brilliant, the perforamnces both from Catherine Crowley and Zach Raffan in character and Tim Maloney and Jim McGrath as musicians give it a reasonable amount of verve (in particular, the climax gives good interaction between the quartet).

"Floozy Boozy Monday" winds up the evening with some reckless mute clowning with Katie Woodward and Anna Voronoff. They're committed performances and wind the evening up with a giggle.

As always, it's worth sampling Short and Sweet as a good mixture of what short-form theatre can do in Canberra - it is not wall-to-wall excellence, but it's often intriguing and diverting.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Short and Sweet, Wildcards, Courtyard Studio

The wildcards is always the most un-even of the Short and Sweet groupings - but in its un-evenness, there's sometimes a few unpolished gems (and occasionally something shiny and perfect). This time, it's, alas, more un-even than most, but there's three ten minute pieces deserving of mention.

First, "The Literary Monogomist" is a witty, well-staged piece of cross cultural referencing, well held together by leads Jess Waterhouse and Luke Middlebrook. In the wide strokes of making fun of people overly-attatched to a single literary fetish whether it be Jane Austen, Star Trek or the Bible, it's a fun idea (although there's never quite a full-hearted engagement with the third one - which is a pity, there's always room for broad biblical reinterpretation) - in the details, I'm not entirely sure having most of literature teaming up to save the soul of one bored check-out-chick is necessarily the most deep (why her rather than anybody else, I wonder-  it seems like the usual condescension towards chicklit). Still, it amuses, and mostly moves at a decent pace (though I think the Trek interludes drag a little - in particular, one joke about Shatner's other career higlights played to absolute silence, and the direction is pretty perfunctory). It's probably about three rehearsals and a rewrite away from true excellence.

"TV" is basically an exercise in allowing the seven performers from Child Players to play around across genres - there is a brief gesture at a deeper message, but mostly it's about showing off the talents of the ensemble. And this is a skilled ensemble who switch modes, characters and styles instantaneously. If young performers can play on this level it's indicative that there's a bright future for ACT Drama.

"The Liberal Rainbow" is a superior piece of verbatim theatre, working around issues regarding gay marriage and political responses to it - Sue Webeck directs a strongly visual and aural kaleidoscope by selecting carefully through the speeches and framing them amusingly, musically and soulfully.

As for the remainder - there's some good ideas, some good performances and even occasional good pieces of writing, but they don't quite add up to satisfactory wholes in various ways - some can't sustain the full length, some are overly interested in playing towards a twist that is overly obvious early on - there are several worthy themes that aren't rounded out into full pieces (ten minutes is really too long to just repeat the one idea without variation).

So this is probably the weakest of the servings, but with three interesting titbits.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Short and Sweet, Top 20 Week 1, Courtyard Studio

Theatrical Yum-cha is back! The current round of Short and Sweet seems the strongest I've seen yet, with plenty of clever, amusing, intriguing, thoughtful pieces in there.

"Sex Tape" (written and directed by Evan Croker) begins promisingly - Katarina Thane's "She" owns the stage in her confident lustyness and John Lombard's embarrassed "He" is suitably awkward. It does suffer slightly from a "seven minute mark authors statement" syndrome -  the characters start to be lost a tad and become mouthpieces rather than individuals - but it at least has a nicely startling final image.

"The Runner" (by Wayne Mitchell, directed by Heidy Perri) doesn't play quite as strongly - possibly because the characters are so written on one level, the plot developments remain obvious and there isn't a lot to the material. There's a couple of nice moments (Maurice Dowling and Penelope Vaile's face-off-tango moves, in particular) but this doesn't quite flow.

Genevieve Kenneally's "Potato Whore" is strongly staged and a good execution of a simple but clever idea. Alison McGregor and Scott Rutar score strongly and stably as the protagonists, with Rhys Hekiman and Laura Griffin playing well around them, and the direction is strong, physical and visually interesting. I'm not entirely sure the writing quite knows what to do with the additional characters (Kellie Seccull's Zooey may have been better as a one-moment cameo, and John Lombard's Professor doesn't really add to the piece so much as ... is just there crowding up the stage) but it resolves nicely.

"A.N.X.I.E.T.Y" (written and directed by Ben Harris) is a good break in the male-female-relationship stuff that's dominated the first half - it's very much a fully-staged piece using all the elements of light, sound and the space of the stage. Cara Matthew's terrified Evelyn draws the audience in, while Sarah Michelle Thomson's Hunter is suitably freaky. There's a slightly messy resolution involving Neil Parikh's Konrad where the script seems to be drawing in an entire other field of plot too late (wait, is she scared because she's flying or because of this relationship?) and there isn't quite an easy chemistry between Matthews and Parikh to help this to work, but it's one of the more impressively staged pieces of the night.

"Sacred Profane" (written and directed by Kirsty Budding) isn't the strongest piece - it's attempting to write about a taboo topic, but it's simultaneously over-written and doesn't have a particularly strong or new insight into the topic. Also, a two hander really lives or dies on its performances, and unfortunately I don't think Terry Johnson's teacher is really up to snuff - he talks about strain and angst but it's never really felt by the audience.

"The Lady who peeps out from behind a folding screen" has a nice slow simplicity to it that contrasts well with the rest of the evening - a lot of the effect is deliberatley visual. John Lombard's simple script is well illustrated by Alison McGregor's directing, and Arne Sjostedt's music and the makeup from Chole Dodgson, Helen Braund and Kim Kerby really help with the mood and the style. Genevieve Kenneally's "Lady" is suitably intriguing and shy, Stevan Savic's Samurai has that gruff protagonist thing working for him, Monique Suna's Maid is witty and impudent, and the mean-geisha trio of Michelle Cooper, Joshua Bell and Katie Woodward are a great addition.

"Death in Ten minutes" (by Joachim Emilio, directed by Petra Lindsay) is meta-to-the-extreme but keeps on finding new levels to disappear down the rabbit hole. Tse-Yee Teh's "Zleen" is stronger as playful sidekick than the somewhat bombastic X.O of David Weisner, but all in all this is reasonably amusing.

"Triple Nought" is an impro piece devised and performed by the trio of Catherine Crowley, Ruth Pieloor and Heidi Silberman. On this particular night, the setups and developments tended to play stronger than the resolution with a lot of great ideas being thrown out but not all of them resolving particularly cleanly, which is a slight risk in impro pieces - but other nights I can see this one really flying.

"Black Coffee" (by Deanna Ableser, directed by Liliana Bogato) is unfortunately a fairly static piece and spends a lot of time analysing what should be a fairly simple decision. Lucy Bates sells her side of the storytelling reasonably well but there's a little too much fussy staging with props (I'm not entirely sure why Don Smith leaves without his laptop, for example), and it fails to really stick.

"Business Meeting" (written and directed by Ryan Pemberton) is a suitably ridiculous ending to the evening - Brendan Kelly's high-energy performance centres the piece strongly with Tom Short's acquiesent Shan hilarious in response and Mitch Gosling playing the straight man well.

All in all it's a cleverly mixed evening with thrills, laughs and drama a-plenty. A good launch to the season.

Edited to add:  "Business meeting" won both the audience and the judges voting. Also through from the judges voting for this round were Triple Nought and Sacred profane. The other audience choice was "Potato Whore".

Friday, 1 August 2014

Arcadia, Canberra Rep

Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" is one of his finest plays. It combines deep thought about maths, history, literature and the certain heat death of the universe with a fair few sex jokes (often very witty sex jokes). It's that rare play with both heart AND brains and offers a theatrical feast for the brain and the soul.

Rep's production captures much of this feast and serves it up in fine style. There's a rich variety of performances - from the youngest, Jack Taylor doing double duty as the shy, silent Gus (whose physicality speaks volumes) and the snidely brattish Lord Augustus, to the oldest, Graeme Robertson, whose Jellaby serves up the dryest of dry commentary with perfection and perfectly timed pauses and sniffs.

In between those ages we find two collections of casts. In the 19th century, there's Amelia Green, whose Thomasina is sharp and intelligent yet still the unknowing innocent in so many areas; Matthew Barton as Septimus, her tutor, rakish, sly, yet increasingly bewildered by his pupil; Helen McFarlane, ever the grand lady of the manor; Colin Milner's perfectly blustery, easily flattered and slow-on-the-uptake Chater; David Kavanagh's stiff-upper-lip Captain Brice and Arran McKenna's befuddled and bemused architect, Noakes. In the 20th, Laine Hart's sharply incisive Hannah leads the way, supported by Pat Gallagher's terrifyingly self-confident Bernard; Sam Hannan-Morrow's knowledgeable but heart-sore Valentine and Sian Harrington's bubbly Chole.

It's a rich team who keep a long (close to 3 hours) play flying by with sharp twists, turns and counterplots as events from one timeline start to influence the other in all kinds of unexpected ways - with so many telling small details that a second glance is recommended. The unexpectedly moving finale had my heart skipping a beat. Quentin Mitchell's grand set is capable of close intimacy and broad spread from moment to moment, assisted by the able lighting of Chris Ellyard. Neil McRitchie's sound design combines classical music from the 19th century with all kinds of delightful cheese from 1993, and Michael F. Coady's piano work fits in delightfully.Helen Drum's costuming crosses periods with aplomb.

All in all this is a delightful rich mental pudding of an evening.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

The Burning, Everyman Theatre, The Q

Duncan Ley is the finest working playwright in Canberra. Fullstop. I'm sorry if that insults others, but ... the crown is his. Come back again when you've written as many heartfelt, strong, dynamic plays as his and we'll talk again.

"The Burning" is his first play that got a wide audience, a tale of 17th century German witchtrials with a strong fathers-and-sons thematic underneath, and ... no, it's not his best play - it does slightly smack of melodrama (and dressing one set of father-and-sons all in black with a lot of leather kinda empahsises the point), plus the courtroom events in act two draw strongly on other courtroom dramas more than anything that would ever happen in an actual courtroom - but it shows a strong capable writing mind producing strong, propulsive drama. It's engaging from the gentle, witty beginning to the shockingly twisted end, and, for a story that is strongly dependent on torture and violence, all the violence is kept carefully offstage, described rather than presented, but no less chilling in its effect (as always, it ends up being more-so as there's nothing creepier than the audience's imagination).

In the context of his later play's, it's intriguing how his common themes of power, guilt and the place of his character's in their wider society are all here - just that his most recent works have moved away from the period settings of plays like "The Burning" and "When in Rome" into modernity of "Home at the End" and "The Ides of March". If I prefer the more recent works it may be because the historicism plays a little as a crutch - a way of borrowing authority rather than earning it.

It seems somewhat unfair that fate, as well as making Duncan Ley the finest working playwright in Canberra, should also make him an astoundingly good actor. In the role of Ernst Vasolt he refuses ever to fall into an easy pattern, with every line of dialogue, and every movement drawing the audience in. He can gently throw away lines casually, only to turn and smash the next phrase into the audience. It's impossible to take your eyes from him when he comes to play.

Astonishingly, Jack Parker, who plays Frances Schiller, is still in high school. Astonishingly because he more than stands his own with actors of senior authority, presenting a compassionate, emotive, deep, performance  - it's a major mainstage debut and I doff my hat.

Amy Dunham has that strange gift of being instantly loveable as soon as she appears on stage.In her opening bickering with Parker, she's fast and clever, and the two of them have great chemistry together with that feel of a real, strong, binding relationship. Her final exit from the play (late in act one) also sees her launch herself off the stage in a way that seems astonishingly reckless (but I have no doubt is carefully choreographed for her own safety) - she amazes me.

In a major break from his usual typecasting as a beamingly charming fella, Will Huang is pure concentrated twisted rage as Frederick Vasolt - he gets astonishing effects just from holding a knife, or chewing an apple off a crowbar. He is, in the best way possible, thoroughly disturbing.

Jarrad West ... isn't as strong as he might be as Phillip Schiller. There are moments when his strength comes through - the declaration "I love my son more than I love my god", or his involvement in the trial scene - but there are other moments when it doesn't seem he's truly feeling the complex emotions that lie within Schiller - his characterisation occasionally seems to come from the script rather than from the heart. West is one hell of an actor, and this may be an awkward mix of performer and role, but it's the one piece that didn't really land with me.

Geoffrey Borny shows strength and will as the unfortunate Johannes Junius. Tony Turner projects easy authority but is unfortunately not always on top of his lines. And Peter Holland celebrates a victory lap of a great year for drunk acting (after his sublime Aguecheek) in the early scenes before becoming an easily bamboozled magistrate in the later scenes.

Duncan Driver's directing keeps the show pacey, strongly presentational, and builds the tension nicely. Tim Hansen's music gives the play a strong underbeat and maintains that tension and energy without being intrusive into the action.

In short, this is fine work performed excellently by a company on the top of their game. Well worth the trek out to Queanbeyan.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Cabaret, Canberra Philharmonic

Back to the slightly-chlorinated foyer of the Erindale theatre, and Phlharmonic's latest addition to the crowded schedule of Canberra musicals. And it's a goodie - Kander and Ebb's story of 1920s Berlin on the verge of historic disaster combines strong songs with a story of dramatic import.

Unfortunately, the version chosen for performance is the 1987 revision, not the one currently playing Broadway (nor is it the original version). Cabaret is one of those shows that has an iconic film version that doesn't completely resemble the show it's adapted from, meaning that subsequent revivals have tried to insert the songs from the film as much as possible. In this case, the revision also tried to plum up the romantic plotline between Cliff and Sally in ways that I don't quite think work - some gestures towards Cliff's bisexuality (given Christopher Isherwood, the historical analogue of Cliff, was exclusively gay), and an added song (since cut in subsequent revisions), "Don't Go". Unfortunately, there really isn't much to be done to make Cliff particularly interesting - he's better as an observer than as a dramatic participant, and his song is banal. Trying to expand his role only leads to the first act being a slightly butt-numbing 100 minutes - this desperately needs to be tighter than it is.

There's also one or two unfortunate directorial decisions - in particular, several of the songs are delivered in a flat, "stand and sing" style where the performers stay stuck to the spot in ways that feel un-natural - like the director hasn't gotten around to giving them any blocking. Ros Engledow's Frauline Schneider is a particular victim of this - both her solos suffer from cement-feet.

Central to any Cabaret is its Emcee, our somewhat untrustworthy guide through the world of 1920's Berlin. Angel Dolejsi delivers an intriguing angle on the character - less a satyr and more a clown, one who's slightly endearing, and who becomes during the course of the show more and more alienated from his surroundings and less convinced of the songs he's singing and jokes he's telling. It's a cleverly informed performance.

Kelly Roberts provides a Sally Bowles who is suitably fascinating, gossipy, funny, heartbreaking and exasperating - projecting both the outward confidence and her inward insecurity. Again, she's somewhat sabotaged by external elements - the combination of her costume and lighting at the beginning of "Mein Herr" do not show her off to best advantage (this isn't a costume made for silloutette), and her version of "Cabaret is damaged by having her concluding the song in an overly-tight-follow spot while a set change goes on behind her, and by not having nearly the motivation it should have (I've seen the song placed in other productions after her final scene with Cliff, and without that lead up there's not the sense that she's working out and defying all her problems in the middle of the song). So she's merely good when she could have been spectacular with better support.

Ian Croker makes me a liar again - I've said previously that he's most interesting when he has a hint of evil around him. His Herr Schultz has no hints of evil, and is loveable without being cloying, and remains fascinating. Engledow matches him as her firm exterior melts when confronted by his kindness - and their breakup is heartbreaking.

Dave Smith's Ernst is suitably genial as required, although keeping him as the only person wearing a coat at the end of act one means that too much of a hint is given as to his secret. Kitty McGarry's Frauline Kost is similarly sharp and petty in ways that become darker as the show progresses (it's a pity her character virtually disappears in Act Two).

I've criticised a range of Jim McMullen's directorial decisions, and I should point out that, as many as fail, several others succeed - his use of Doleji in some of the non-cabaret scenes is particularly adroit. His musical direction needs no such criticism - his band is tight and sounds great. Similarly, the design (shared between McMullen and Croker) manages to make the sometimes-awkward Erindale stage play wonderfully, with a good sense of height and space.

This is, let me point out, one of the all-time-classic musicals, done in a very good production. It's not excellent, and there are flaws... but it certainly rewards close watching.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Hedda Gabler, Belvoir

The Belvoir method of reinvigorating the classics, giving them a fresh lick of paint and contemporising their outlook, is not universally popular. And, to be fair, it is not a universal panacea - while keeping it contemporary can be a way to let the cast and audience into the production, the director is still responsible for keeping the show lively and engaging.

Unfortunately, Adena Jacobs' production of "Hedda Gabler" fails this in the opening five minutes. She's way too fond of her own stage images (long, silent scenes before the dialogue of Ibsen's play begins, breaking up between scenes), and her stage pictures just aren't fascinating enough to stare at for ages to reward the length of time we're left to examine them. The pace of the play (and this is a substantially cut text - 90 minutes long in total) never really recovers from this particular directorial self-indulgence.

The where and when is also quite messy in some of the other details. Why does the car have American number plates? Jacobs' program note suggests that it's about the American dream, but ... frankly, a bored trophy wife like Hedda feels just at home on the north shore of Sydney as she does in California, and the choice not to use American accents means that any American gesture is minor.

Ibsen's drama does peek through and there are redeeming moments here and there. Ash Flanders' Hedda does reflect a couple of the angles of Hedda - a ridiculously rich role, simultaneously a wild monster of a woman and a wimp, whose fantasies of conquest and destruction are brought flat by her decision to make a comfortable marriage to a mediocre academic. He plays the role distinctly as a female (including an impressive tuck during his nude scene) but there is a point at which his portrayal of Hedda's boredom with life does read as distinctly boring in itself - though part of this is a production problem, and part of this is Jacob's somewhat clunky translation.

As for the rest of the cast, Marcus Graham's Brack comes across best - it's when he's working his way around Hedda and insinuating himself into her life that the show really comes to best advantage. There's a delightfully congenially-predatory quality that Graham brings to the character that keeps him endlessly watchable. Oscar Redding's Lovborg is suitably intense and mercurial, Anna Huston's Thea keeps the character from being too much the easy-victim, and Tim Walter's Tesman keeps the character as he should be, a friendly, studious but not particularly interesting man (I've seen Hedda's suffer from Tesman's who wanted to be interesting).  Lynette Curran is pretty much wasted as Aunt Julie with nothing to really get a handle on, and Branden Christine's Berthe is given one of the worst modernist cliches, the maid who is required to stare silently at the rest of the characters and silently judge them - no, it isn't an interesting thing to do with the maid characters in classical literature - they're small parts, stop trying to make them bear weight they're not meant to.

I appreciated the production in the sense that it gave me a chance to think about Ibsen's play. But I don't think it's a particularly good production of the material.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Legally Blonde, Free Rain Theatre, ANU Arts Centre

It's been a while since I've reviewed a Free Rain show - in fact, the last time I did was their production of "Cats" back in 2012 (my first review!) And they've certainly been growing as a company - their production of "Phantom" last year was, like it or not, a landmark in local theatre last year (getting local amateur musicals back on the main stage of the Canberra Theatre is not to be sniffed at).

And there's a whole heap to praise in this show. First of all, the show itself  -I love large chunks of Lawrence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin's score - it's bouncy, bubbly material, with a kinda 80's musical styling full of witty lyrics. Heather Hach's book moves efficiently across the plot, feeling pretty much "Just Like The Movie" - although it does slightly bog down in the legal-trial shenanigans of Act Two (it may be partially that Elle's journey of discovering her self-worth is pretty much done by the end of Act One, so there's not really a lot of internal movement outside of plot shenanigans to drive the show).

Next, the cast. Do I believe that the only option was to cast an interstate professional as Elle? Well, I'll just say that the cast also includes Jenna Roberts, Vanessa de Jager, Laura Dawson and Michelle Norris and leave it at that. But if we're going to have to do that (and it may have been a contractual requirement for the rights), Mikayla Williams is charming, funny, engaging, dances wonderfully and sings pretty good too (though her voice was obviously tiring by the end of Act One - still, she's barely offstage during the entire show and she was back on pitch in Act Two, so a temporary lapse can be forgiven).

Jenna Roberts is Jenna Roberts. Which means ... well, my theatre-crush on her just extended again. Her gloriously, goofily ridiculous, adorable, ever-so-slightly-trashy Paulette is welcome whenever she appears on stage, particularly when singing "Ireland", possibly the most ridiculously whimsical song of the score.

Damon Grebert-Wade is a suitably snotty Warner, although there's just enough of a hint as to why he might be likeable underneath to not make Elle's attraction to him ridiculous. Brian Kavanaugh is sleezy, jazzy perfection as the slimy Professor Calaghan. Dave Evans' Emmett is likable but ... maybe it's a problem with me having seen too many musicals, but this is very much a photostat Dave Evans performance (I've seen that "clutch the chest and look into the middle distance and belt the note" movement too many times before) and there's never really a lot of chemistry between him and Williams, which is a pity. Sarah Darnley-Stuart's Vivienne is delightfully snotty when required and equally generous when required to be, however her singing voice feels a bit too "trained" - I don't know that this should be a role that needs collatura sounds, and her vocals don't mix well with the rest of the cast.

Elsewhere in the cast, David Cannell's three cameos stick out for particular attention as being delightful cartoons, similarly Zack Drury's Kyle arouses repeated hysteria (and he even gets a chance to unleash his comedy-legs). Special mention to Bella as Bruiser and particularly Mosey as Rufus, who are quite adorable and most importantly don't bite any of the cast.

Nick Griffin's musical direction is tight and sharp - this is a well drilled cast and band working at peak power. Michelle Heine's choreography is similarly skilled - I have no idea how the cast has quite that much energy but I'm glad they get a chance to show it all off. The set is a combination of Steve and Susie Walsh's architecture (which is adaptable, clever and gives the cast multiple useful playing areas) and Chris Pitcairn's AV design (which, again, indicates the tone with witty cartoonishness). Fiona Leach's costumes are all wonderful (I'm not entirely sure how you get danceable low-crotch pants for the Jamaican bit of "What You Want" but I'm glad she found them) - whether tacky or couture, they reflect character, mood and style.

Chris Neal's sound design needs polishing - in the opening number I had no idea which cast member was singing which line for large chunks of the song, and levels generally were pumped into the uncomfortable level of "loud" (to be fair, I was seated pretty much in prime blasting range of one of the speakers, but still).

So this is a show I love, done to a high degree of polish. It's good, friendly fun.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Showtune, Canberra Rep

Rep's regular variety performances have been a popular favourite for the better part of 40 years - throwing a range of performers and sketches together for spontaneous mixed performances with verve and enthusiasm. Variety has been slipping away as a popular art form, however (largely a nostalgia thing - the last time there was a big wave of variety on TV was the 70s and early 80s), and this season, Rep's not quite delivering variety - instead, it's a tribute revue to Jerry Herman, that most showbizzy of composers.

There's still a wide variety of numbers - from jazzy sass to heart-rending-pathos to big chorus numbers. With a cast of eleven (well, twelve if you include musical director and accompanist Leisa Keen, who sings a few solos and joins in on the chorus numbers). The show as curated by Paul Gilger parades through around 38 songs over ten sequences of songs, with clever thematic combinations forming connections across different shows from different eras, including letting songs from one show become rebuttals to the sexist assumptions of songs from another era.

There's a lot of high points - Sarah Hull conquers with a whammo "Wherever He Ain't"; there's a lovely blending of two obscure songs from "Dear World", "And I was Beautiful" and "Kiss Her Now" shared between Michael Moore and Janelle McMenamin; Moore also gets to do his Louis Armstrong impersonation for "Hello Dolly"; Keen's delivery of "Time Heals Everything" is soulful and strong; and McLenamin and Liz DeToth get a chunk of good laughs with the classic "Bosom Buddies". There's a lot of wit in Jordan Kelly's staging (in particular, the act two opener "Just Go to the Movies") and the show flows delightfully throughout.

Unfortunately, this still remains a bit of an uneven show that isn't as tight as it might be - I don't know whether first night nerves were hitting heavily or whether the cast were in uncomfortable spots in their vocal range for a few songs, and a couple of dance routines were spottier than they should have been. But this is thoroughly decent light entertainment, showing off talented performers skillfully - and that's always welcome.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Brothers Wreck, Belvoir

Belvoir's had an on-and-off relationship with indigenous drama - some strong hits ("Radiance", "Up The Road", "Namatjira","The Sapphires") and a few less so (I didn't think much of "Jack Charles vs The Crown" or "Welcome To Broome", for example). At its strongest, Belvoir's used indigenous performers in wide-ranging plays, and brought them into the ensemble strongly.

"Brothers Wreck" is ... perhaps a little too middle-of-the-road as it goes. There's some strength and heartfelt work here, and it's obviously passionate about the issue of suicide among indigenous youth, and the ways through it with family and support network. But there's a slight sense that vital details that would make this an individual story rather than a "typical one" are missing.

The story of Ruben (Hunter Page-Lochard) whose brother has just committed suicide in the opening scene, is told in a series of scenes as he attempts to push away from everybody's attempts to engage and support him. His court-mandated counselling sessions with David (Cramer Cain) do come across as a exposition device rather than something really earned (there's virtually no details about whatever crime may have caused a court to order them). It's on stronger ground with the loose bonds of family and friends - cousin-come-sister Adele (Rarriwuy Hick, strong but a little too keen to smile through the pain), her boyfriend Jarrod (Bjorn Stewart, who presents a good solid generous soul) and aunt Petra (Lisa Flanagan, whose late arrival brings a breath of fresh air and realistic tough love into the proceedings).

It's a piece from the heart, but seems about a draft or two away from really flying in all ways. Clearly, Leah Purcell's directed passionately, and the performances are strong and real. And the set evokes the wet hot north wonderfully (even on the verge of winter), all open spaces and dripping windows.

This is a play that some people are going to take to their heart anyway - it's passionate and it's concerned and it's well performed. But I think Jada Alberts script too often goes for the easy route of letting the performances fill in where the script should establish the characters better. It's ... not bad. But it could be better.

Monday, 2 June 2014

8 Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, Griffin

It's a simple story. Boy meets girl. Both have issues, and both explore them over the course of the evening. It could be any rom-com ever written.

Except ... in this case, neither particularly want to be honest about themselves with the other person. They want an escape, they want a release... but neither of them are able to get out of their own heads and out of their own way to get to a point where they may actually understand and engage and enjoy another's company. Two people demolished by their own neuroses.

This sounds grim, dire stuff. And in lesser hands than those of writer Declan Greene, director Lee Lewis and actors Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs, this might have been. But instead, this is human, funny stuff - it's unblinking in the face of the characters flaws and unsentimental, yet ultimately something very engaging to the heart and the mind. Staged very simply - two performers, two chairs, a lot of shagpile carpeting and a few vertical blinds, there's nothing to come between us and the characters. Greene's script demands they engage the audience directly, repeatedly, often in extended monologues and rarely in actual conversation with one another - and, even when describing utterly disturbing things, we're still drawn in. 

Yes, the title is utterly a tease - this could be called "Reflections on sad loneliness between two people". But that title doesn't sell tickets, while this probably does. So why not buy one? This plays the street later this month, and it'd be worth catching.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit - Street Theatre

 Nassim Soleimanpour's play is an intriguing experiment. The title itself refers to an experiment that's described in the course of the play - one about conformity and group behaviour. And in many ways, that's what this is - an experiment in conformity and group behaviour. One that's being played on the audience as well as the performer.

In many ways, this most resembles Boho Interactive's "Word Play" from last year - also an experiment, with some intriguing moments - though White Rabbit Red Rabbit definately sustains its experiment better, largely by letting the experiment be two-sided - the actor is as much unprepared for what's coming as the audience. 

Performing tonight was Eliza Bell, whose departure from Canberra has been noticed and somewhat lamented (she's so very good). Performing cold without having ever read the material, she remained engaging, engaged, emotive and true. 

I do think Soleimanpour's script is a little ... manipulative. But I would say that. I'm the rabbit being experimented on. There are a few more experiments running before the week is out and ... if you don't mind something that's going to stretch you a little, you can join Nick Byrne, Raoul Craemer or Kat Bhathena and get experimented on a little.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

The Government Inspector, Belvoir/Malthouse

This is just plain funny. It's hysterical. And to say why, to summarise, is to give away large chunks of the jokes. No, it does not bear a lot of resemblance to Gogol's play ... although, having said that, it does eventually veer back towards the ostensible source material - but as a pure, unadulterated comedy, this plays incredibly well.

It's not obvious that this should be the case. Simon Stone's productions from "Thysestes" to "Hamlet" have, occasionally, had their moments of bitter humour, but this is an entirely different beast - a spoof of actors, of the haphazard process of creating theatre, and the hopes that somehow, somewhere, it'll all work out okay on the night.

The cast, too, aren't always noticeably comedic actors. Robert Menzies, who's strength at playing serious, haunted, tragic figures is undeniable, translates his mournful nature into hilarious pessimism. Greg Stone, so disturbingly moving last year as Polonius, takes the hysterical perskittiness in a different direction. Mitchell Butel, Gareth Davies and Zahra Newman have more recent comic form, but push their comic personas in intriguing new varieties in several new directions.

Does it compromise by not bringing across Gogol's original? Well, yes and no. The political satire of Gogol's play is pretty minimal, really - it's about how the easiest way to fool people is to make sure they want to be fooled in the first place. And that carries through in this new variation on a theme - while letting the comedy reign free and wild.

Very recomended.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Witches of Eastwick, Supa, ANU Arts Centre

John Dempsey and Dana P. Rowe's musical of John Updike's novel (via the George Miller-directed film) was a late period Cameron Mackintosh production (he's only produced one new show since, the stage version of "Mary Poppins", co-produced with Disney). It's an odd piece in may ways - a cross-breed between the English mega-musical with big power ballad sings and spectacular effects and the American history of musical comedy with jokes and bouncy chorus numbers.

In Supa's production, it plays largely as a vehicle for five of the leads - the three titular witches,  with Louiza Blomfield suitably earth-mothery as Alexandra, Vanessa de Jager all fluttery nerves as Sukie, and Kelly Roberts acidly sarcastic as Jane; plus Jarrad West as the darkly compelling man they conjour into town, Daryl Van Horne and Michelle Klemke as the interfering gossipy busybody Felicia who acts as their nemesis. All are cast to perfection - the three witches in particular harmonise gorgeously under Rose Shorney's musical direction. The chorus makes a good collective, too, on numbers like "Dirty Laundry" (although I do think some of the dancing comes on a bit as "we need dancing here" rather than anything particuarly expressing plot or character).

If the material starts to derail shortly after halftime, it's largely the material that's at fault - the three witches lose their individual personalities and become an unidentified clump, the show really misses Klemke after she leaves, plus the plot developments come a bit too fast and unclearly motivated. But the company remains game for it and rides out the messier plotting before a big female empowerment ballad finale (with unfortunately cliche-ridden lyrics).

Production-value wise, this is a pretty reasonable production. I quibble with the costumes for two of the trio at the end of Act One (I know it's a challenge to stick a flying harness under a big flowing dress, but they've managed it for Kelly Roberts so the other two are entitled to something a bit better too). Shorney's orchestra is as solid a combo as one could wish for.

In short, this is a fun, lush evening out with five great cast members at the top of their game and a delightful ensemble supporting.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

For departed heroes.

In the last month, three theatre-related people I know have passed away. Two of them I knew well, and I'll memorialise them (I didn't know Jasan Savage well, so I feel inadequate in memorialising him.)

James Waites took his last swim at Coogee Beach on 12/2/2014. I met him only a year ago, though I'd been reading his work much longer than that. I read his contentious run of reviews on the Sydney Morning Herald and The Bulletin, and I started reading his intermittent but fascinating writings on, and occasionally entering into the brawling in the comments. It was one such contact in the comments where I mentioned I wouldn't be able to see the sold-out Canberra season of "The Secret River" ... where James kindly contacted me and offered me a ticket if I was prepared to host him for a night. I did, we saw it, the review is on this site for anybody who cares to read it ... and we had extensive conversations about theatre, about life, about what he'd seen and experienced, about the world he'd lived through, his current work recording interviews for the National Library, about his involvement with Mardi Gras and about, inevitably, his health problems. I later got a chance to drop round his place in Surry Hills a few times, and to host him again for the July production of "Hipbone Sicking Out". He mattered hugely to me.

NaonĂ© Carrel I'd known for over 7 years. It probably comes as no surprise to readers of the blog that, yes, I do have an association with Canberra Repertory. And NaonĂ© is a key reason why that association went from "vaguely liking their shows and appearing on stage finally in one of them" to "ending up doing all kinds of things with them from crewing to front of house to a brief run of set building". She spread the invitation gratefully and made it impossible for me to consider anywhere else my natural Canberra Theatre home. She engaged, she cajoled, she occasionally micromanaged but she cared deeply and fiercely. Losing her is a loss that will undoubtedly be shared by many.

Once in Royal Davids City, Belvoir

Michael Gow's latest play returns to the autobiographical strain that he's used with "Furious" and "Toy Symphony", though this time he's renamed his protagonist and turned the anger down a little. An exploration of grief, of how and why we tell stories, of Brechtian epic-theatre and of simple moments of compassion, it's an intriguing 100 minutes, though not, as it currently stands, completely satisfying.

The play is very dependant on the lead performance by Brendan Cowell, and I found him a little bit ... disengaging here. Much of the play is his extensive rants on theatre and politics, and this would appear to require a more full-blooded performance than what Cowell serves up. He's sardonic and witty as the dialogue requires, but a bit more heat would have helped an interesting collection of ideas turn into something more emotionally engaging.

The rest of the cast appears in what amounts to brief cameos. Helen Morse as Cowell's mother has fire and energy in her early performances, but then is confined to bed in a coma and can offer nothing more. Tara Morice is wonderfully entitled as a private school teacher who insists "socialism doesn't matter any more", but ... again, her character disappears shortly afterwards.

In short, I felt like I was offered appetisers and I wanted a full meal from this one.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Steel Magnolias, Canberra Rep

Robert Harling's comedy/drama is a gift to actresses. It's incredibly funny (the number of highly quotable one-liners would fill up multiple pages) but also strongly emotional, and manages to capture six rich characters living wildly different and intriguing lives over four scenes located in one Louisiana Beauty Salon. It's no wonder the play went from first production in 1987 to a much-beloved film two years later, and just as obvious why it'd be revived frequently all over the world.

Jordan Best directs a production that does honour to the text. There's a couple of shaky points, which I'll get to, but by and large this is a show that brings the laughs and the tears in equal measure, and keeps an audience engrossed for two-and-a-half hours.

The heart of the show is the sometimes testy, but ultimately loving, relationship between Shelby (Nell Sipley) and her mother, M'Lynn (Karen Vickery). And this heart beats strongly. Shipley is warm, impetous, determined and brave, and it is impossible not to take her to your heart. And Vickery delivers a goddamn powerhouse performance - I've not seen her on Canberra stages before and now I want to see her frequently. She brings heart, soul, style, wit, charm, and devastating passion as required.

The best lines of the show go to Clairee (Liz Bradley) and Ouiser (Judi Crane) - and both bring their best one-liners out hilariously - Bradley as the ex-lady-mayoress finding new joy in a new career later in life, Crane bringing her curmodgeonly best as the ever-cantankerous Ouiser. There is a slight case of wobbly accents and wobbly lines here and there with both, but hopefully this was opening night nerves and will settle down shortly.

As the two employees of the salon, Truvy (Rose Braybook) and Annelle (Amy Dunham) are slightly backgrounded in this production - Dunham as the newcomer gets a bit more to do with hilarious naivety and social ineptitude (she's even that rare thing, an endearing born-again-Christian) while Braybook is likeable and charming.

Michael Sparks' set is a beauty, with plenty of clever little details (the back window, for instance, isn't in the text but adds humour and style to the show). Emma Sekuless' costumes are mostly smart and stylish (although the costumes in the final scene for Bradley and Dunham seem to be slightly out-of-kilter - they're a little too "ridiculous fashions of the 80s" for a production that's otherwise in-period but not in-your-face about it). In a show where hair is vital, Charles Oliver and Penny Vaile's work is spot-on and makes Truvy's work look great.

In short, this is a great launch to Rep's 2014 season, combining lots of laughs and just a few tears for a charmingly loveable production.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Oedipus Schmoepidus, Belvoir

Back for another year ... and it's with a bit of a conundrum. Because advance notice from the various critics was that this was a horrible, self indulgent wank of a piece that would have me despairing of my choice to take up another Belvoir subscription for the year.

And certainly, there's the potential for wank in abundance here. The setup is that this is an attempt to examine death through the examples of the major works of the western canon of great writers - Aeschylus to Wilde, Chekhov to Voltaire. And to see what great truths these works can reveal to us. The writers are a collective called post, made up of Zoe Coombs Marr, Mish Grigor and Natalie Rose, who describe themselves in the second line of their bio as "straddling live art, theatre and contemporary performance practices". I can practically hear rat in the ranks screaming "shoot me now".

Which, by coincidence, is exactly how the show begins - with Marr and Grigor both shooting themselves in the head (with appropriate amount of splatter). And then getting up, to repeat the process of death with daggers, swords, poisons, neck-cracking, hand amputation and other brutal methods, over and over again. It very quickly gets ridiculous, like a live-action warner brothers cartoon - repeating patterns of mutilation over and over again. Ending with a bang, we move on to a long, slow cleanup - then we meet the volunteer performers.

An ensemble of somewhere around 20 performers, the volunteers have had three hours worth of prep and are reading their lines from screens stuck up above the audience - sometimes in unison, sometimes solo. They act initially as a greek chorus as Marr and Grigor discuss the insights that might be able to be gleaned from the great works of the western canon - except they never get around to providing any acutal insights, instead being bogged down in increasingly ludicrous similes and diversions. Meanwhile the chorus get to do all manner of odd things - from walking through reciting a line, to demonstrating what death might look like, to wearing silly costumes, to dancing.

Needless to say this is a very odd evening. But it's not unproductive - the general spirit is a sort of larrakin absurdism. And of course, nobody can really tell you what death is like - the very point of death is its finality, that nobody can report the exact experience from the inside, even the greatest and wisest men of the western canon. But in the meanwhile ... it's possible to extract enjoyment, silliness, and moments of delight, even in the face of our impending demise.

I found this sorta inspring, entertaining and diverting. And it delivered something that I doubt I'll see much like any time soon. If you were going into this for any greater depth ... you were going to be disappointed,and perhaps this accounts for the hostile reviews elsewhere. But, dammit, I liked it.